What is a Falling Star? – The Leonids and Other Meteor Showers

The Leonid Meteor Shower is one of the best celestial shows every year. Observe it annually on November 17-18.

Among the hundreds of bits and pieces of fact and fiction, myths, beliefs and superstitions handed over to us by our elders, wishing upon a falling star is the most commonly practiced.  Not because it is inherently true — because it is not — but because it is human nature to hope, and to dream.

© Falling stars are not stars! They are meteors.

I’ve seen hundreds of falling stars during my childhood days, and perhaps managed to wish on 10 or so, but needless to say, not one wish came true.  My childhood wishes — from a cone of ice cream to the ability to fly — remain relegated to a long list of unfulfilled desires.

Now, 10 years and thousands of falling stars later, despite dashed hopes and unrealized dreams, I remain fascinated with falling stars, often losing myself in watching the night sky.  It didn’t matter anymore whether I wished or didn’t; being outside, in the dark and watching the stars, is enjoyable enough for me.

Of Meteors and Meteoroids

I came to know the real meaning of falling stars only when I was in grade school.  I found out that they were not actually stars but meteors, particles and chunks of rocks and metals burned by their entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

The meteors’ lives are tragic;  once they were part of a comet, orbiting the sun just as the planets do.  When the comet gets near the sun, though, heat from the celestial body strips away layers of it, leaving space debris on the comet’s orbit. 

And as the comet goes around the sun, it leaves part of itself behind following in its wake.

Eventually, three things happen to the comet: it passes by the sun and returns in the nth year, depending on its period; gets out of the Solar System, managing, somehow, to be released from the sun’s gravitational hold; or is consumed completely, leaving only trails of meteoroids — as the floating space debris are called — to commemorate its passing.

Meteor Showers and Storms

The meteoroids remain in the comet’s orbit until it intersects that of the Earth’s.  Once a year, the earth passes by an orbit of a comet, and the meteoroids enter the earth’s atmosphere, producing a shower of falling stars as seen from the ground.  These annual show of meteors are called meteor showers.  They are usually named after the constellation they seem to radiate from.

© The Leonid Meteor Shower

The shower on November 18, for example, is named the Leonid meteor shower since the meteors seem to come from the constellation Leo.  The Leonid meteors are the remains of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which passed by the sun sometime in February last year.

Annually, Leonids produce about 50 meteors per hour, or roughly one meteor per minute.

Every 33 years or so, however, when the earth passes through a dense part of the comet’s orbit, a wonderful thing happens: a meteor storm occurs, instead of just a shower.  For comparison, a shower produces more than 1,000 meteors per hour, or 16 per minute!

For myself, I look forward to preparing a wish list for November 18. For no matter how many times I miss wishing on a falling star, there’s bound to be more to wish on!

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15 Responses to “What is a Falling Star? – The Leonids and Other Meteor Showers”
  1. RAJEEV BHARGAVA Says...

    On October 29, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    a beautiful article and great fun to read. highly educational and full of information. i am a big fan of astronomy so it was a real treat to read this. the illustrations were superb and the writiyng style ws so good, it kept me engrossed in the script. call it preminition, i re-assembled my telescope some weeks ago and was looking at the moon. after reading this, i shall keep an eye out (literally!) for these meteors and comets. thanks very much for sharing, Aleah.


  2. Kaye TM Says...

    On October 29, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    very nice article. interesting. can i get a wish right now?=p


  3. Ruby Hawk Says...

    On October 29, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    We used to bring a mattress on the back deck and watch them fall. just an amazing sight.


  4. aleah Says...

    On October 29, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    @ rajeev: yes, astronomy is very fascinating. i wish more people would stop and look at the night sky once in a while.

    @ ruby hawk: i hope you will still continue to do that. the heavens is amazing!

    @ kayeTM: observe the leonids on november 18 and you will get as many wishes as you like! :D


  5. Likha Says...

    On October 29, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Great science lecture. I hope I won’t forget to look up to the sky on November 18.


  6. GodsGrace Says...

    On October 29, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    Good Work


  7. Leanna C. Rose Says...

    On October 30, 2010 at 12:05 am

    You have a nice writing style, Thanks I’ll be watching to !


  8. lapasan Says...

    On October 30, 2010 at 1:06 am

    nice article.


  9. Melody SJAL Says...

    On October 30, 2010 at 4:23 am

    Have ever watched a metero shower… nice post.


  10. MsPatriciaDV Says...

    On October 30, 2010 at 10:45 am

    i want to witness a meteor shower


  11. researchanalyst Says...

    On October 30, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    interesting


  12. lovestar2010 Says...

    On November 6, 2010 at 10:42 am

    great share


  13. BruceW Says...

    On November 18, 2010 at 10:14 am

    I saw my first ever shooting star (yeah, I know that’s not what they really are) on Sunday. I was so chuffed!


  14. Nina Mason Says...

    On December 3, 2010 at 4:36 am

    Fascinating information.
    I love the skies… so much to see.


  15. Nikolaos Skordilis Says...

    On December 3, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Beautiful and well-written article,thanks for sharing it with us!!


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